Harry Williams scored the game-winning goal in the 85th minute, former Pleasant Grove High star Matt LaGrassa scored his first professional goal, and Danny Barrera got his club record ninth assist of the season as Republic FC rallied for a 2-1 victory against the Orange County Blues FC in front of an announced sellout of 11,569 on Saturday night at Bonney Field.
With the win, Republic FC (13-6-8, 47 points) became the first Western Conference team to qualify for the postseason, and Sacramento remained in first place, two points ahead of the surging Rio Grande Valley Toros FC. The Toros beat the Swope Park Rangers 2-0 earlier in the evening.
Sacramento also extended its unbeaten streak to eight matches.
“To be honest, I have not looked at the league table all season, and I am not going to look at it tonight,” Republic FC coach Paul Buckle said. “I’m aware we’re doing some good things. The players showed me different qualities tonight.
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“They showed that we could win a bit ugly because we have been easy on the eye of late. ... Tonight we had to fight for our lives because it was touch and go who was going to win that game.”
It was a gritty, physical battle as the teams combined for 33 fouls.
Orange County (10-13-4, 34 points), battling to stay in the playoff picture, played a man down from the 87th minute on after Akwafei Ajeakwa was red-carded for a foul on Republic FC defender Elliott Hord.
But even then Sacramento needed a game-saving stop by goalkeeper Evan Newton in stoppage time on former Republic FC midfielder Ivan Mirkovic 30-yard driven shot that whistled past several defenders.
Williams’ eight-yard blast from inside the box came from an assist by Hord just moments after former English Premier League star Carlton Cole entered the match for Republic FC.
Republic FC’s bid for a fourth consecutive shutout ended just seconds before the half when Chris Christian was called for a hand ball just outside the box as he tried to turn to avoid a blasted shot from a few yards away. Didier Crettenand’s bending free kick hit the inside left post for a 1-0 lead.
Sacramento quickly responded in the 48th minute when Barrera took a ball over the top from James Kiffe on the left side and found LaGrassa for a one-touch goal on the back post. LaGrassa’s shot just beat sliding defender Andrae Campbell.
“Just an unbelievable feeling,” LaGrassa said. “To get a goal like that when the team needed it was just a great feeling. Danny made a great run in from behind… and I’m glad I could just finish it.”
The first half had plenty of fireworks beyond Crettenand’s goal.
Ajeakwa hit the crossbar and post in the 21st and 27th minutes, respectively.
“Orange County played very well,” Buckle said. “It’s the most they have come out and played against us. Normally it’s a dull affair. They showed us early in the game that they meant business. They were pressing us high. They needed to win. They were going for the playoffs.”
Blues FC keeper Brandon Miller made a diving save on Barrera’s 25-yard blast from above the box in the 25th minute, then former UC Davis player Matt Sheldon headed away JJ Koval’s bicycle kick attempt in the box a minute later.
This was the fourth and final match of the regular season between Republic FC and the Blues FC this season. Orange County won 1-0 on April 30 at Bonney Field, the two sides played to a 3-3 draw in Irvine on July 10, and Sacramento won 1-0 on Aug. 24 in Irvine.
Republic FC will play next Saturday at the LA Galaxy II.